Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Price of Forever

It was one of those odd instances in life where the greatest effect is done by the bystanders. We clustered together, most of the second grade class around Ava and Bruce. Ava had one hand on her hip, her chin thrust forward, and her blond ringlets jangling about her ears. Her blue eyes were narrowed and her pink lips poised into a superior smile. In her hand pressing into Bruce’s chest was a morsel of salt water taffy.

Neither I nor any of my classmate knew the name. Myra had smuggled the item into school that day, only knowing that her cousins in the city ate them a lot during her aunt’s funeral and her parents said she wasn’t allowed to eat one. While such admonitions were common, what was not common was the open bowl sitting within reach. Myra had stolen the candy during the service for her aunt and skipped with her parents back to safety in the Oak Glen. Now, she had presented the illicit article to us.

Ava had taken it immediately, more brazen than any of the rest of us. Her parents were rich and she was beautiful, which meant she had every reason to act boldly as she often escaped consequences. We children of parents of lesser mean, those whose mothers and fathers eked out every last penny to move from the city and protect us from the evil therein, were much more shy, as if we knew how precariously our position was in this world, that our parents would not live forever, but they wished that we might.

Bruce was one of us, but uglier and slower than most. He wore glasses and mumbled when he spoke. His twin brother, who was brighter and cuter, only highlighted his oddness. And now, here he was, cornered at the edge of the playground as we bystanders formed a barricade of bodies to keep him in and Ava stuck the candy under his nose. 

“Eat it!” Ava demanded.

“My mom said you’re not supposed to eat it,” Myra begged, but no one paid much attention to her. Bruce looked more closely at his shoes, biting his lip. 

“Eat it, Bruce,” Ava said. 

“I’m going to tell Miss Merriam,” Quentin shrieked, running away. He was always a tattletale and a compulsive liar. It would probably take several minutes for Miss Merriam to believe his story, so we ignored him too. All the same, we bystanders seemed to realize that our congregation would attract attention.

“Eat it, Bruce,” Ava said. She shook back his curls. “I’m telling you to eat it.”

Bruce grabbed the candy out of her hands. We gasped, entranced by the closeness of mortality. We had not yet been long on the Earth, but we knew the cost of food. We knew that to eat extraneous food was to sacrifice everything.

Bruce looked up at our sudden and guttural reaction. He seemed to find my eyes, and ask “Is this what I have to do? Is this what you want?” I think he only saw hunger in my open expression. The forbidden fruit was so close and someone might partake. 

Whispers rose and fell from us bystanders, unable to elucidate a clear desire. All we wanted to see was what came next, too afraid to step forward. I felt I could not stop nor hurry this process. I was only an observer. 

“Bruce, don’t do it! Dad says not to!” Bruce’s brother, Timothy, said, breaking past the line of us. 

Bruce shoved Timothy away. Bruce may have been ugly and slow, but he was big. Timothy tripped back into me, his mouth agape, as if that brief physical motion was the most surprising thing he could have ever imagined happening. 

“Eat it,” Ava ordered. 

Miss Merriam was squawking in the background. Our time was short. We bystanders leaned forward, unable and unwilling to hide our expectation. 

Bruce ate the salt water taffy. 

Miss Merriam diffused the crowd swiftly as we all set to running in opposite directions to avoid punishment. 

“Bruce was silly and ate a candy,”Ava declared, as if she had not been ordering him to. Miss Merriam, panicked, picking the child up and beginning to run to the school nurse. Timothy collapsed on the asphalt and began crying. 

Seeing the attention was away from us and focused on Bruce, who had no external effects for his sudden mortality, we stopped and watched. The question was all on our minds, “Why did he eat it?” A moment of peer acceptance versus eternity? But, it was never a choice. When we gather and egg another to his death, what else could he do? We were hive creatures sharing a communal mind. The desires of the many could overcome the desire of an individual, and our mere enjoyment at playing in the power of life and death had overridden Bruce’s desire for life. 

And Timothy cried and cried.

The principal sent a note to all of our parents, and, in turn, all of our parents sat us down for the talk. Mine decided that I should the history of immortality, a story of two scientists working fruitlessly for their parents, then their own lives. When their breakthrough came, it heralded a new era, but not for them. A complex mixture of drugs was not enough. It had to be combined with a specific diet and environment, a proper mix of oxygen and a tasteless broth of green-gray sludge. The couple’s own newborn daughter was their test experiment, and she was still alive, 273 years later. 

My father was raised on the diet. However, my mother was not. She was doomed to die, so he ate their wedding cake without remorse or hesitation. They would leave me. However, I had no such impending mortality, but I could never eat the candy. I couldn’t go outside to play without my respirator and special clothes. If I followed all the rules, then I would never have to die. If I loved them, I would follow the rules for them, because they had worked very hard to provide this opportunity for me. 

I loved them. I wondered if Bruce loved his parents.

Ava told us that Bruce would go away now since he was going to die. He didn’t. Instead, a week later, Bruce and Timothy came back to school. The principal told us we were to treat Bruce in the same way we treated him before, but I don’t think she knew how we treated him before. No adult would ever admonish us to continue that behavior.

We barely talked to Bruce. Ava took pains to loudly tell the other students that they should be extra nice to Bruce since he was going to die when he was in hearing distance, but otherwise, he drifted to the margins. Timothy would talk with his brother sometimes, but not often. For the most part, it was as if Timothy never had a brother. 

“My parents decided to stay in Oak Glen for me after the candy incident. They wanted to keep things normal as possible after everything. I mean, him and me both knew what was going to happen, but they wanted to pretend like it didn’t,” Timothy told me at the high school prom. His cute upturned nose as a child did not fit a growing man’s face. It made it look pinched, and his voice had barely dropped since then. He was thin as a reed, but still I had asked him to be my date. He was intelligent and he held the key to the story that interested me throughout my schooling experience.

“Where does he go now?” I asked.

“Oh, Bruce?”

I nodded.

“Well, eating gray-green mush and wearing masks loses their appeal when it isn’t helping you survive, doesn’t it? He moved out after he convinced my grandpa to let him go live with him in the city,” Timothy said.

“Sophomore year?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said.

“Your grandpa, is he going to die soon?” I asked.

“He’s in good shape so far, but he probably only has a decade or two,” Timothy said with a shrug.

“My maternal grandparents are dead, but my dad’s parents are alive, and their parents too,” I said. “But my mom and dad are going to die sometime. My dad ate the wedding cake.”

“Mine are going to die too,” Timothy said. “All my family is.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Me too,” he said. “It makes me wonder if it be better just to die, you know?”

I looked horrified, which caused Timothy to smile in a way that made his face look not so pinched. “Look at us, we’re dancing at prom and we’re discussing mortality. Shouldn’t we be partying or kissing?” His face flushed pink as he wondered how I would take the comment.

“How about the latter?” I said, reddening to match his shade.

“Okay,” he said. We kissed.

“Bruce Wallace died today,” I told Walt as I checked my email during break.

“Who? Is he an old boyfriend?” he asked, leaning back from his computer terminal.

“No, I knew him from elementary school,” I said. 

“I thought you went to one of those fancy, enclosed, immortality schools,” he said. His parents had put him through public school with masks and thermoses of gray sludge. He always held it against me that my upbringing had been without kids threatening to take off my mask and make me live a normal lifespan.

“I did, but one of the children ate a candy one day at recess,” I said.

He whistled, “Tough break. Imagine going through all of that just to have your five year old eat a piece of candy.”

“He had a brother who saw the whole thing too. He tried to stop him. I saw it,” I said. “I actually ended up dating the brother. That’s who invited me.”

“That sucks. Are you going?” Walt asked. “I mean, have you seen this guy since elementary school?”

“I think I will,” I said, opting for brevity over trying to explain my part in this death seventy years in the making.

“Do you need someone to go with you then?” Walt offered.

“Thanks, but you don’t have to. Funerals are the worst, a monument to our fragility and impermanence. This one especially, when he was born with such high hopes of living forever. Nana Nguyen usually comes with me. She was one of the first generations, you know. She knows how this works,” I said. I remembered when she held my hand at my father’s funeral. My mother had already past at that point, but Nana Nguyen comforted me, swallowing her own grief at the loss of her grandson.

“Alright. Do you mind checking out this coding bug. I’ve been staring at it for the last hour, and I swear I’ve made no progress on it whatsoever,” Walt said.

The city was cold and murky. My office building and home were environmentally isolated. I worse my respirator so little, I was afraid it would not fit, but it did. It seemed strange that my only clothes for braving the harsh elements of outside life were mourning clothes, but I realized the only times I ventured out from my protected shell was to attend a funeral.

Nana Nguyen met me at her home. Her genetics seemed to scramble in its passage to me, as there was little resemblance between us. I was much more phenotypically similar to my mother’s side of the family, which I was hardly able to meet as they all died so young. My Nana Nguyen and I looked more like best friends than relatives as we came into the funeral as a pair.

There were few people wearing masks, but only one I recognized.

“Hello Ava,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in a lifetime. I hear you are getting married?”

“Yes, Irma and I are tying the knot in, oh, is it only three years now? My, how time flies. Thinking about it always makes me so twitterpated. It’s like falling in love all over again. I heard about your loss. So terrible to lose one’s parents so young. I am sure it is difficult. Who is this?” Ava asked, switching from ecstatic to lugubrious to curious in smooth succession. “Someone special?” Ava winked with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. She had not lost her bravado.

“Oh, this is my great-grandma Hee Young Nguyen,” I said. “Nana, this is Ava Kennedy.”

“I’ve read your articles, Miss Kennedy. Quite fantastic. There are so many preconceptions about those who make our choice, that I feel those less educated than us make grave mistakes which are perpetuated in their children,” Nana said.

“I know the pain of loss, so it is my only hope that I might convince parents to make the responsible choice for their children,” Ava said seriously. “If just one parent chooses to raise their children within the confines of the Herriman Lifestyle and eliminate their risk of age-related disease and many other terminal illnesses, it would make it all worth the effort.”

The service started. I looked for Timothy, but could not find him. I wondered if it would have been too difficult for him to lay his brother to rest. I would understand. It had taken every part of me to lay my father to rest, and I had Nana Nguyen to lean upon. To bury one’s brother would be nigh impossible.

Several people spoke. An elderly, grieving widow recounted their life together. With mortality ever approaching, they had married so young, to try to carve out some happiness before it was snuffed out. A balding man spoke of his memories of his father and siblings. When people die so quickly, raising children could be done in quantity. The man had had two brothers and two sisters. A young woman, in the prime of her youth, whose only mark of accepting mortality was her missing respirator, spoke of the grandfather she knew who encouraged her into geriatrics at the local hospital.

A man approached the podium with white hair and a gnarled cane within an equally gnarled fist. I gasped after he spoke two words: “My brother.”

Beneath the wrinkles, beneath the age spots, beneath the baldness and sunken eyes, it was the boy I danced with at prom. It was Timothy.

Timothy, concerning himself with neither my astonishment or that of Ava’s, continued to speak. “My brother and I were inseparable as twins as ever were. We often claimed to be identical twins, although a half-blind monkey could see that we weren’t. Other times, we claimed that we used to be conjoined. We always had a good laugh at the quantity of people who would believe that lie.

“As many of you may know, my parents spent their life fortune trying to build a better life for my brother and I. On boths sides, there were early deaths of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Our parents wished to save us from that. After they took us from my mother’s womb, we were given a processed blend of amino acids, essential fats, globs of carbohydrates, and a special mixture of supplements so that we may forgo aging. As most of you know, it was imperative that we only receive this nutrient mixture and breathe a special mix of gases in order to achieve our parents dream of eternal life.

“When my brother was eight years old, he ate a salt water taffy. It was watermelon-flavored. He had never tasted watermelon. He had never tasted simple sugar. They pulled my brother away from me. They tried to take it away. They made him throw up. They put him in the hospital. They attached him to more wires and tubes than a child can dream of, but my brother exited the hospital with the same diagnosis he had upon entering. There was nothing he could do. He was going to die.

“It was difficult for me. I represented what my brother could never have. All the other students at our school, who had been raised on the same nutrient broth, would never have to face their mortality. They treated Bruce as a pariah for his lifespan, as fully as they accepted me for sharing their fate. With Bruce so angry, a truculent rebellious youth, it was easy to slip away from him. Bruce and I became separate people. 

“It wasn’t until my last year of high school that I really thought on it. I was lucky enough to be invited to prom, and there, my date and I discussed mortality. It made me think. I never thought so hard in my life. It made me realize how much I was missing my brother. How much I was missing life. 

“I drove down to see my brother and my grandfather that night. Bruce was a funny guy. The first thing he asks when I show up after not seeing him in a couple of years in a rented tux, a borrowed respirator, and a rented limo already speeding off behind me was, ‘Do you want to join gramps and me for dinner?’”

“Bruce told me about his new school, all the new friends he made who didn’t care he was going to die in sixty years, all the foods he had tried, each one having a different flavor, the different sites he had seen outside the bubble we had lived in so long, and his new girlfriend who would later be his blushing bride. Gramps prepared a big pot of spaghetti. All of my food had come powdered in vacuum-sealed containers at this point, so I was mesmerized at the complex process of cooking. Then, I did something I thought I’d never do. I took off my mask and ate with them. The spaghetti was undercooked, the sauce was from an old jar that might have been expired, but it was the best thing I tasted in my life.

“I returned to school the next day, changing nothing. I ate the same muck. I was careful to use my respirator when leaving environmentally optimized structures and protect my skin from the pollutants and excessive UV light. I continued this charade until the day my parents died, then I began living for me. 

“Bruce taught me that life is made in imperfect moments. In grasping what you had now instead of yearning for a better tomorrow that might never occur. Without death, there was nothing anchoring me, nothing making me treasure my life, since the seconds meant nothing. There would always be another to replace it. Without Bruce, I would have never stepped outside my life to look at the world. I would have never traveled. I would have never enjoyed good food or have met my wife. Because of Bruce, my life was fundamentally changed in so many amazing ways. 

“Bruce was braver and more sage at all of eight years than I could have ever hoped to be. Bruce died, and I soon may follow in his footsteps, as I was always wont to do. But, because of Bruce, I have lived more fully than I would have in an eternity. Good bye, Bruce. You have been the best brother a man could hope for,” Timothy said.

“Thank you for coming. It has been a long time,” Timothy said, grasping my soft, unlined hand, enclosed in a special glove, with his bared aged one. 

“It has,” I agreed.

“Interesting speech, although it did rely on several logical fallacies whose propagation could prevent the longevity of an entire generation,” Ava said, while retaining her smile. She gave her curls a little jiggle, as if expecting Timothy to appreciate her beauty and thus accept her comment. 

“I thought it was excellent. I never really got to know Bruce, but I think I know now,” I said. Timothy’s warm eyes glistened. His nose still looked pinched, but it fit his lined face better than it ever had in high school.

“Thank you,” Timothy said. 

“You continue to perpetuate the myth that it is impossible to travel and stay within the confines of the Herriman lifestyle. New improvements in respirators and protective clothing has made traveling easier than ever. And, the nutrient supplements are now being introduced in three separate flavors,” Ava said. 

“Nana Nguyen needs to meet her bridge club at four, but I would really like to thank you for inviting me,” I told Timothy. 

“The pleasure was mine,” Timothy said. He grasped my hand again. As it left, an object dropped into my palm. Instinctively, I clutched it and slipped it into my pocket without a word.

I sat at my kitchen counter, staring at the object on the granite counter. I often found it ironic that I possess a kitchen at all, but it was one of the old houses that were reconfigured to meet the needs of the new booming market catering to those trying to reach immortality. 

I hit the edge of the wrapper, and watch the salt water taffy twirl. It was pink with a green border. It had little dark spots in the pink. I recognized the image from old picture books of my mom and dad. It was a watermelon. 

I had never tasted a watermelon. I would never, unless the newest sludge decided to adopt such a flavor. Even then, I suppose it wouldn’t be the same. 

My maternal grandmother was full of old adages. One such was, “everything in moderation.” It was deliciously ironic, which made my grandmother all the more likely to repeat it. 

Moderation was impossible here. Any mistake cost everything. There only existed a dichotomy. Inside or outside. Light or dark. Life or death. 

I had lived eighty years. I had never gotten married. I had never had a child, although even assuming I was married and wanting a child, many couples had to wait for decades in order for approval for conception. I could still have both those things. I could have anything, but instead, I had so little. So many things in life had been good, but I left them in hopes of finding something better. I could not blame it on such an exterior factor as a diet. The fault rested with me, but was this apparent immortality preventing me from living? 

I could be hit by a car and killed like any other. And what would I have for it? No widow or widower would speak at my funeral, no child, much less grandchild, no brother. Many people died before eighty, but I hadn’t lived, because I was waiting for a better time to do so. 

I unwrapped the candy. It was harder than puddy. My brain had difficulty accepting the item as food. The food had I had eaten previously the last eighty years did not resemble it in the slightest. If anyone Ava or Walt or Nana Nguyen could see me now, they would think I was crazy. My parents would say I didn’t love them. I could be charged with reckless self-endangerment. 

I raised the candy to my mouth, letting it hover by my lips, untouched by time.  I could smell its intoxicating aroma, more intense than any food I had ever eaten, than I ever would eat. The surface of the taffy was as smooth as my skin, and its colors were seen pristinely in unaged eyes that had seen so very little. 

Frozen in such a position, I wondered, what is the price of forever?

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